No one wants to give in to fear. Not you, not Marty McFly. Not only do we dislike the emotion, it feels shameful to be afraid. We hate it even more when others accuse us of being fearful. Whether the accusation comes from Biff, Griff, Needles, a pastor, or politician, the Back to the Future trilogy shows us how to overcome our fear of being fearful.
What’s Wrong, McFly? Chicken?
Marty McFly repeatedly shows his bravery by standing up to bullies and old west criminals. He risks his life for others. Nevertheless, when accused of being fearful, he stops in his tracks, exclaims that “Nobody calls me chicken,” and acts foolishly to prove his bravery. He does whatever his accuser wants him to do out of his fear of being a coward.
In his original timeline (remember it’s a time travel movie), he enters a drag race when Needles calls him a chicken. As a result, he hits a Rolls-Royce, injures his hand, and destroys his dream of being a musician. Thirty years later, McFly gets fired because Needles similarly provokes him in the video above. Marty continually allows others to manipulate him.
COVID-19, Fear, and the Fear of Fear
As I write this post in the spring of 2020, most of the world practices social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which includes staying at home as much as possible and wearing face masks when out.
Most church leadership have acted responsibly by cancelling their services and putting them online. Unfortunately, some refuse and meet in person despite the danger it causes to the flock in their care and the essential workers the flock will meet elsewhere. To make matters worse, some leaders imply or explicitly say that social distancing and wearing masks is fearful. These words place guilt on their listeners as the speaker condemns fear as the opposite of faith.
While Needles and Tannen (including Biff, Griff and Mad Dog), maliciously manipulate their listeners, I hope most of these pastors at least mean well. Nevertheless, their words have the same effect of causing people to act against their better judgement in order to prove to themselves that they are not fearful. Regardless of the intentions, they endanger their congregants and the rest of society.
What’s Wrong, Jesus? Chicken?
Of course, this is not the first time an accuser asks a person to act foolishly and implies that they do not trust God if they refuse.
Then the devil took [Jesus] to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Matthew 4:5-7)
As Satan tells Jesus that God will protect him, some pastors argue (with less scriptural basis or even the same passage) that their parishioners will not catch the virus if they have faith.
It’s Not About You
Of course, there is a time and place for encouraging faith and dissuading fear. How can we know if someone tries to help us or manipulate us?
Both Needles and Satan ask their listener to do something unnecessary: drag race or jump from the temple. They focus on whether or not the listener is a coward or an impostor, i.e. if Jesus is truly the Son of God. They ask the person to prove themselves.
Instead, an exhortation to faith should focus on love and the positive benefits of the act of faith, not the act itself. As Paul writes, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal 5:6).
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to focus on love and not fear. As most of us are not in a high risk demographic, we can make the sacrifice of social distancing (and it is a sacrifice) to minimize the spread of the virus, which especially helps the elderly and immunocompromised. In this way, far from demonstrating cowardice, social distancing and wearing face masks embodies love. After all, wearing a face mask primarily prevents others from catching the disease from you.
Back To The Future emphasizes love in the timeline in which Marty does not drag race Needles. The audience sees that Marty is not in the car alone. The reckless action would have endangered his girlfriend, Jennifer, as well as himself, not to mention everyone in Needles’s car and others on the road. Refusing to prove himself brave, he instead shows concern for those around him.
The first film in the trilogy provides an additional insight regarding love and fear. While Marty desperately tries to show others that he’s unafraid, fear controls his father, George McFly. Near the movie’s end, George learns to overcome his fear when he finally says “no” to Biff Tannen, the man who has bullied him for years. Though he had never stood up for himself, he risks his life to protect a woman from being sexually assaulted by Biff.
When should we accept danger? Not when someone calls us a “chicken” or implies that our actions lack faith, but when others need our help.
May we learn from Marty and George McFly. Do not endanger others to prove yourself brave, but overcome fear to love others.